Saturday, June 25, 2005

Vogue December 04 - Cate Blanchett

At the other end of the world the half moon rises on its back over a series of bays crusted with beaches and harbors that make up the city. The pink people speak English, the skyscrapers could be anywhere, but August comes at the end of winter, strange flowers rise from the road dividers, abalone is a staple, kangaroos are vermin, sheep are prized, and up north, as Cate Blanchett will tell you, people lick the backs of cane toads to get high. The money is called dollars, and the bills are made with plastic (local joke: "Clean and wipe and use again"). It's a no-nonsense place, where the haughty are shot down for "big-noting themselves," but the suburbs have camp names—La Perouse, Beverly Hills, Balmain, Sans Souci.

This is Australia, where the actors come from. The great ones who can make you believe anything. The ones who don't take any shit. The men are carousers, from Errol Flynn through Peter Finch to Mel Gibson to Russell Crowe, and the women have astonishing range, from Dame Judith Anderson through Zoe Caldwell to Judy Davis, Rachel Griffiths, Nicole Kidman, and most recently and most stunningly, Cate Blanchett, the human chameleon, so adept at modifying her face, her body, and her energy that even people who have worked with her can fail to recognize her on-screen. She's described as a character actress in a leading woman's body, but the kind of beauty that she can project is beyond the usual norms. Her characters all share a kind of radiant transparency, which along with her white skin and penchant for minimal makeup has earned her the adjective "luminous," repeated so often that Anthony Minghella (who directed her in The Talented Mr. Ripley) declared a moratorium on it. He has also, brilliantly, described her quality in Elizabeth as a "chalky phosphorescence."

Cate Blanchett may claim not to be driven, but she goes very fast. She graduated from drama school in 1992, earned an Oscar nomination for her pale, noble, and angry Elizabeth I in 1998, followed that with a startling turn as an air-traffic controller's wife in Pushing Tin, and in a film career that barely spans seven years she has played a dizzying variety and a staggering number of roles: earthy Australian nurse in Paradise Road, gambler heiress in Oscar and Lucinda, monarch in Elizabeth, Russian showgirl in The Man Who Cried, quirky bank robber in Bandits, Georgia psychic in The Gift, Middle Earth elf in all three Lord of the Rings films, British bomber in Heaven, Irish journalist in Veronica Guerin, New Mexico frontier woman in The Missing, defensive movie star and her entitled rocker cousin in Coffee and Cigarettes.

She has a gift of consistent authenticity, rare in actors and rarer still in stars. With Cate Blanchett, unless you are told in advance that it's her, you mostly have no idea who you're watching on-screen. She's a shape-shifter who gives the viewer, each time, the uncanny sensation of peering into the private life of a complete human being. If you can manage to draw back from the reality that she creates, it's like suddenly watching a virtuoso musician at the top of his form, in complete control of exceptional skills.

Cate Blanchett this month will be on-screen as Katharine Hepburn in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator. In it, she's a quick-talking, fast-moving, golf-playing, bossy, determined actress whose energy and style cannot help but back Leonardo DiCaprio's Howard Hughes into a series of self-hating corners.

She's also a journalist in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a character he says he based on Jane Goodall; Cate plays her as a wispy but determined intellectual. She has just finished a short run as Hedda Gabler, Ibsen's heroine who inspired Freud in his studies on hysteria and is every actress's Hamlet, onstage every minute, neurotic and dangerous.

The entrance to the wharf that holds the Sydney Theatre Company is hidden behind a chicken-wire fence, dotted with a random cluster of red and yellow plastic crash barriers. The theater itself is 500 feet down the uneven floorboards of a reclaimed loading bay, where Cate Blanchett's face on the poster for Hedda Gabler is only one among many. The theater seats 330 people, the show was sold out six months before it opened in July, the reviews have been raves. Every morning the stairs leading past the small box office fill with people hoping for standing-room tickets; at lunchtime they keep up their strength with the basic Sydney meal of take-out sushi and cappuccino.

"I want to do something serious," Cate had said to Robyn Nevin, the head of the Sydney Theatre Company, a lady actor-director with fierce dark eyes and white hair. Blanchett's husband, Andrew Upton, had already adapted two plays and written one for the S.T.C. when he was asked to rework Ibsen's raging portrait of a disappointed woman. Upton, a sweet-looking blond man with hair that stands up like Woodstock's, the bird in Peanuts, trimmed the fat of nineteenth-century politeness to expose the jagged ribs of subtext, and Cate signed on. She went into rehearsal in June, weeks after giving birth to her second son, Roman. The day after the play's Sydney run ended, she flew across the pacific to California for four days to pose for this magazine, then returned to Sydney to begin work on Little Fish, a small Australian film.

The creature who arrives at the restaurant at the end of the wharf is so pale as to be almost aquatic: her blonde hair pulled back, her wide face naked, her tall frame compressed, as if boneless, in a scarab-green velvet coat that she holds tightly around her. Roman is four months old, his first tooth is coming through, and the nights in the rented apartment three beaches away are rough for Blanchett and her husband. She has lost the weight she gained with Roman: eight performances a week, a new baby, and a charming three-year-old. She's exhausted. The fingernails on her pale hands are bitten, and even the two rose-diamond hearts on the Georgian ring from her husband are wan. "It's getting a bit moldy," she says, fingering the ring. "I think you're not meant to wear them in the water.…" They married in 1997, in the Blue Mountains near Sydney. She set up their bridal registry disguised by what she calls "a shocking hairdo," and under another name, "Heather Clutterbuck," a girl she'd known at school.

Her hands fan out in front of her face, reach to investigate the bread, close on the menu, grasp the wineglass, return to hold the coat tight again. She seems to use her hands the way a blind person would, a constant motion of the fingers grasping the physical world, stroking, holding, testing everything. She's given up the matte red lipstick she used to wear. "I was a real lipstick freak, but you go to kiss your children"—her pale lips move forward in the unconscious mimicry of a kiss—"and you end upleaving.…" her hands sweep the air, sketch the shape of a small face, wipe a mark from an invisible cheek. She's put away her necklaces because "with a four-month-old baby…," and one hand pulls an invisible chain away from her collarbone so that, invisible, it breaks.

She removes the coat to reveal the bright cartoon print of a shirred voile Missoni dress, worn over old blue jeans. It's the same dress she posed in for an Australian style magazine. A gigantic cruise ship named Spirit of Tasmania heaves past the Harbour Bridge. Physically fearless, she gaily suggests that I climb the arch of the bridge, an immense parabola that visitors can scale, shackled with cables.

Playing Hedda is a homecoming: She and Upton live in Brighton, having decided, while in Ireland for Veronica Guerin, that it was time to look for a place. "We made a checklist: we weren't going to live in Australia, we wanted to live by the water, near but not in a major city, and I needed to be able to get a great cup of coffee. I didn't want to live in the middle of nowhere. We saw this house on the internet, and it seemed to fulfill all the criteria."

They stripped a listed Georgian house back to its essentials, but they have barely lived there, having been in Sydney since June. Upton has a library to pace around in, the London papers reported the hauling of a marble bath into an upper-story bathroom, and Cate, who collects books and notes and pictures and letters and pieces of paper and scraps in boxes, has a tiny room, what her husband calls "a scroff hole." "My room for the moment is fantastic because we've just moved in … it's white, everything is white, the desk is a perfectly built board that I've painted white." Best of all, she says, with a truly Australian sense of proportion, the house is "so close to London, only an hour and a half."

"I think you only really understand Australia from going into the dead heart of the country where you travel for so long, and when you get there, from a white perspective, there's nothing." She's appalled at the recent election result: "The terrible thing that this current government reveals about us is our absolute deep racism. There's a very, very dark side to it that I possibly understand a little better having been away from it. I don't think Australia can ever really be tamed."

Her fears are antipodean: tsunamis, sharks, and spiders, because "in Australia if you see a spider, the likelihood it can kill you is 100 percent. Everything can attack you here; all the snakes you see are deadly. The strange experience of being white in Australia is you think you understand it, but you don't." She was born in 1969 to an Australian mother and a father from Beaumont, Texas. When he was in the navy, his ship, after a long voyage to the Antarctic, broke down in Melbourne, where he met Cate's mother. A long correspondence ensued after he left, and he came back to Melbourne to marry her.

Peter Carey, who was later to write the novel Oscar and Lucinda, worked in the same advertising agency in Melbourne as Bob Blanchett, and remembers "an earnest advertising executive, tall, baby-faced, and pleasant, with thick horn-rimmed glasses." Cate's sister, Genevieve, is a talented set designer; her brother, Robert, works with computers. It was a playful family. "I was always making up little characters and being them for a few days. A lot of girl detectives. My sister would dress me in something, and I'd make a character out of it, and she'd give it a name." Cate did calisthenics as a child, which has left her uncannily supple. Her mother, horrified by the makeup on the other children and the pushy mothers, removed her to ballet and piano lessons instead.

Her father died when she was ten. When she went to university, it was to study economics and fine arts; she even passed an accountancy exam. "I actually wanted to get into curation; I like to collate and arrange." Her passion for art endures, and today she collects works by Paula Rego, the New Zealand artist Rosalie Gascoigne, Tim Maguire, and William Robinson.

She auditioned for Nida, the remarkable Sydney drama school, only because of some rivalry with a girl with whom she was in a play. "I auditioned because I couldn't resist it, not because I thought of doing it seriously. Even when I got in I thought, I'll give it three or four years; then I'll give up and go do something else, go back to study architecture. I've been fleeing all my life from the concept of being an actor."

The brochure for Nida (the National Institute of Dramatic Art) states, "Imagination and courage are valued more than popular success." It started out in 1958 at a racetrack, and is now a long building with a huge new theater paid for in part by Mel Gibson, who trained there, as did an extraordinary group that includes Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Blanchett, Baz Luhrmann, and Catherine Martin. Its head, John Clark, recalls Cate Blanchett's "stunning audition" in Melbourne. It was a monologue from a Hungarian play called European Features, a girl talking about having been fat. "You know good acting when you see it," says Clark. "She's a romantic actor—there's the ones who always come out the same, and there's the romantics: Robert De Niro, Cate."

Tony Knight, who runs the acting department, points out, "Cate only missed three days of school, in a highly competitive year. If the student is disciplined and knows what they want to get out of the training, rather than becoming a celebrity, it shows."

"I had enthusiasm without any technique," says Cate. "I think my instincts were good, but they needed to be focused. I had a small scholarship, I waitressed, and on Sundays I taught teenagers what I was learning during the week. I don't know that I necessarily wanted to act. I just wanted an opportunity."

She lived in a part of Sydney called Zetland. "I lived in a house, in a room actually, where a girl had been murdered. I found that out late one night, watching TV. Australia's Most Wanted had been through before I moved in and done a reenactment, and there was my room and the bed exactly where it was, and the person climbing through the window to strangle the girl." She turned off the television but didn't move out. "I couldn't afford to. The rent was 40 or 50 bucks; the house was condemned. But it was a huge party house, not creepy; it was always filled with people, and there was always a lot of great energy mobbing through."

Lindy Davies is a remarkable director and teacher based in Melbourne. Julie Christie won't work these days without input from Davies, and brought her in to help on Afterglow and Troy. Davies directed Cate as Electra at Nida. They had three weeks to work together: "I was very impressed by her intellect, her curiosity, her perspicacity, her physical fluency. We had ahuge set, a structure twelve feet tall made of old bed frames welded together, and she'd climb right up it. She was an astonishing Electra: One day, after we'd been working for one hour in the space, this huge shaft of sunlight came through the ceiling, and suddenly this … creature … stepped forward into it and created a fusion between words, light, and action. An amazing presence happened. Her work in its most transcendent state is Other—pure egolessness."

"When you come out of drama school," says Cate, "you get gobbled up or abandoned, and no one knew what to do with me. So I sort of just did different things, a play here, a play there." Margaret Fink, who produced My Brilliant Career, one of the seminal films of what was called "the Australian New Wave," says, "I was the first person to ask her to do a film. It was to be Tirra Lirra by the River, and I couldn't get people to invest in her. It was ten years ago; they said, 'She's theater; her eyes are too small and her nose is too big.'"

Cate worked with Neil Armfield's Belvoir St Theatre, where everyone, from the cleaner to the actors to Armfield himself, makes 800 Australian dollars a week, and where Steve Martin birthed both of his plays. Armfield directed her as Irina in Chekhov's The Seagull. "She looked like Grace Kelly, with a beautiful comic sadness. She is so unpretentious; she has no kind of claim on herself," he says. "She would always just apply herself to the task. Quite insecure, really, with an immense reserve of skills and an ability to sit inside a thought, a great talent for an actor. It reveals so much, and that's important with Chekhov. Like Geoffrey Rush, she has the power to be outside her body and to absolutely see it as something in a landscape."

In 1996 Bruce Beresford tested her for the role of Susan, the "game, straightforward, no-nonsense" Australian nurse in his Paradise Road, and he was electrified. He sent the test to Twentieth Century Fox, who announced they didn't want her. "I dug my heels in and said, 'This is a good actress,' and won out by being bloody-minded. I couldn't understand thedepths of their dislike. When the film came out on video, they didn't even put her name on the box. And now she's world-famous, the most in-demand actress in the world."

"I'm not a big believer in trying to make people …" she says, her voice trailing off in cadences that veer from Australian to Irish to mid-Atlantic. "sometimes it's their problem, and I'm not interested in changing their opinion or correcting misunderstandings. Life's too short."

Lunch over, Cate's exhaustion returns. "I feel like curling up and putting my pajamas on. Let's go backstage; then you'll get to see the angel." She rises, pays for lunch, and buys coffees for us and a "babycino," a small cup of foam with chocolate on top, for Dashiell, who has arrived with baby brother and nanny.

The dressing room is shared by the entire cast, and the small cubicles are separated by thin cotton curtains. "I think the expectation is somehow there'd be a star turn, and that's not what this is. It's an ensemble of actors putting on a play. I think I single-handedly debunked the myth that actors are exhibitionists because I'm quite retiring in that way."

She answers the phone in the back by Lauren the dresser's ironing board, takes a message, comes back and whips a pair of underpants and a script off her chair; a Dries Van Noten top, a shirred flesh-colored undershirt tunic, lies crumpled on the second chair facing her dressing table, where the makeup consists of what she calls her "sex toy"—a Japanese airbrush foam base in a white cylinder by a company called SK-II—a few boxes of Laura Mercier shadow, some Stila. Photos of Dash and Roman are stuck to the top of the mirror. A jar of Manuka honey, the honey that cures all ills, and some vitamin C are left over from a recent cold. A six-year-old pair of unworn Prada shoes sits underneath. "These are nice, aren't they? I buy shoes all the time, but I only wear two pairs of boots." The boots, black Costume National and Ann Demeulemeester, are mashed under the large bag at her feet. She keeps her shoes in boxes, which she tried to organize with labels and photographs, but gave up after three shots when she ran out of film.

The children return with the nanny, and Dashiell, having finished his sesame snaps, holds up a cookie that he's found:

"Chocolate chip," he announces.

"How crazy!' says Cate. "there's no more after that, doll."

"With just one child you don't have any sense of what it entails, but then, knowing all the progressions, all the firsts become more touching and more heartbreaking because you know what else is to come. And you're watching them develop their little relationship, which is very embryonic at the moment." She picks up Dash; her hands investigate his hair, which stands upat the crown like his father's.

"D'you want to see the stage?" she asks, vitality restored.

Once in the theater, her voice drops to a whisper.

She stops at the nook backstage where, every night, she switches costumes in the dark. Her second-act dress hangs there, a yellow damask "robe de cour" with a fetching black velvet bow at the neck. "The designer wanted me to be in a white floral, and I said, 'she needs to be—anchored more.' What anchored it is this bow at the neck, and the weight of it, and the fact that it's black.…"

Stepping onto the stage she says, "This is where I had my first job." It was two roles in Caryl Churchill's Top Girls. ("I love doubling," she says. Of course.) She crosses the set, looks out at the blue seats rising in sharp tiers on three sides. "Onstage I can't see anyone; it's like a de-focused thing. I look between people."

Hugo Weaving, known for his roles as Elrond in Lord of the Rings and as the endlessly replicated Agent Smith in the Matrix movies, plays judge Brack, with whom Hedda engages in a willful and dangerous flirtation. "Onstage," he says, "you see the same face that you know, but the energy is different."

At a Friday-night performance, the audience has its complements of blue-haired ladies, women in Chinese jackets, Asian couples, people in flip-flops. The seats are so near the stage that when Blanchett comes on, you can smell her perfume. She's so elastic that even her physical scale changes: morphed into Hedda, she towers in a gray brocade morning dress (Will Self, writing about her, was most preoccupied with finding out her height; five eight and a bit, as it turns out, but she can seem to be sixfeet tall or five four).

Blanchett acts with her whole body, blindly following the trajectory of Hedda's sarcasm and despair through whims, pouts, and schemes. The sheer physical commitment of Blanchett's being draws you up onto the stage and into the character. Hedda takes out her violence on inanimate objects: she slams the curtains open, moves too fast, bangs her ring loudly on a glass, and when she takes the manuscript and sets it alight in the fireplace, the gesture is sharp and purposeful one night, and on another, a random,impulsive choice. The greatest violence she commits is against the object most deprived of life: herself. The suicide takes place in the half-hidden room behind the fireplace, and dead, Hedda falls over, sweetly supple, on the couch.

The production has been invited to Broadway for 2006. There is some doubt as to whether Cate will really be able to burn paper onstage.

"What for me was most interesting about Hedda," says Cate a few days later, "was the sense people have that she is a hysterical neurotic because she doesn't actually love any of the men onstage with her. Which presupposes that one should love them simply because they're there. Her love life isn't her entire life; when Lövborg keeps saying it was love between them, she says it wasn't just that, it was the indescribable, ephemeral Other.…"

Tall and narrow in a red Lacroix trench coat at Martin Browne Fine Art, she visits a William Robinson painting she and Andrew have bought, a landscape in which the trees are seen from the ground up and the sky down. "Someone said to me the other day that a really good painting was also a valid journey through time. You travel, you spend time with it, and it either slows time down or takes it into a convoluted infinity because you're constantly circling." She stares at the treetops, the distant waterfall, themanifold changes of perspective in a single canvas that shifts its shape, just like her.

All Cate's directors talk about her extraordinary preparation. She approaches it with a relish of discovery that's intellectual, emotional, and physical, once she has gotten beyond fear. "A lot of my research is a pleasure because it staves off the anxiety of actually doing it—I always fill my head with as much stuff as I can so I don't actually think about it … so that it can just happen and be informed by what I've read. It's fun toying around the edges of something before you actually dive in. It begins from that feeling of terrifying ignorance. The material in the end reveals the process, exposes what it should be. Once I've played a job, all my books and notes get relegated and I'm on to the next thing. You can't carry what you've learned from one project to the next. You try to file it away and compartmentalize it to use it later, but actually it was so specific to the process that you were involved in that it doesn't make sense. I asked Andrew what my process was. He said that he's observed one, but he thinks I need to have it hidden from myself and I don't need to know what it is.…"

Martin Scorsese has been impressed with her since Elizabeth: "She was so brilliant in it that I believed her. I kept thinking, her roles are so different, yet she's so unique to each one."

The Aviator is a big-scale film with a precise focus that holds the story close to the obsessions of Howard Hughes. Scorsese uses a unique palette, from muted to highly saturated, and it's a shock to see the young Katharine Hepburn, whom we know only in black-and-white, in color.

"It's tough to be presenting her in a milieu in which she is iconic. Marty said very early on, 'Don't worry about looking like her.' I said I had to do something, but apart from radical cosmetic surgery or prosthetic teeth.… That's not what he was interested in. So it was just about getting an essence of her, as close as I possibly could." Inspired by Hepburn's athleticism, Cate had golf lessons and played tennis three times a week. "I know she lived to 96 because she went swimming in cold water everyday; it's invigorating, it reverses all the ions, it prolongs your life. But I can't do it."

She prepared the part "reading everything written about her, but mostly watching, absorbing, listening to all the various opinions, the idolatry, the ownership of who she was. A woman who makes an impact, shocks, provokes, and challenges, will always inspire conflicting opinions. I thought the best thing I could do was listen to all of them; the person lies somewhere inthere, all those things are true and they're all untrue."

Scorsese held full-scale cinema screenings of Hepburn's films for Cate. "It was far easier to absorb and analyze her performances on the big screen, their nuances. But the actor voice is so often different from the person's natural speech, and so few interviews of Hepburn exist. I drilled through them, like a language lab. There was one with Dick Cavett where she was bossing him around and moving the furniture, but that was when she was a much older woman. I think one's personality begins to calcify by then."

Cate's Katharine Hepburn is first seen with short red hair, mostly clad in the Old Hollywood mufti of baggy trousers and bright crepe de Chine shirts. "In the film I didn't particularly feel like her in the dresses, but I suppose that's appropriate—she didn't feel like herself when she was in those dresses either," she says.

On the set for Vogue, Cate, a nonsmoker in Sydney, is smoking and using cigarettes as props. Tripping down a runway in high heels and Ralph Lauren champagne-colored bias-cut peau de soie, she exclaims, "Men like women to look like this because they're helpless." Like Hepburn, she prefers to wear trousers and those two pairs of boots, but unlike Hepburn, who bought her turtlenecks at a men's haberdasher next to London's Westbury Hotel and had a fondness for nautical caps, she has a love and a feel for the beauty of fashion.

She knows how to do the red carpet, though she might call it "pretending to be a girl occasionally." And her eye is sharp. At the table on the Vogue set where two discreetly armed guards protect the vintage Boucheron and Van Cleef pieces, she looks at the six diamond bracelets that fashion editor Tonne Goodman has put on her, and gently suggests that the one with the rubies might be better than the one with black onyx. Just someone coming up with a nice idea, not a star getting her way. She's friendly, helpful, modest, cool.

"Do you find there's two yous that you dress for?" she's asked.

"There's a thousand different mes," she answers.

Her generosity and her commitment to what she thinks is good is mentioned again and again, and Little Fish is a case in point. In 1998, Cate presented Rowan Woods, a director best known for short films, with the Australian Film Institute's Best Director award for The Boys, a stylized story of three seething and ultimately explosive brothers in a poor part of Sydney. Cate and Woods became, he says, "strange e-mail pals." And it was always Woods whom she pitched to direct every A-list Hollywoodproject that she was offered.

It didn't work.

"After one and a half years of her suggesting me for other films," he says, "I went back to my own projects. I'd been working for six years on a film, Little Fish, the story of a struggling rehabbed heroin addict, Tracey Heart. We weren't thinking of any actress, but I knew that for this story to have any force in the marketplace, I needed to attract a star. Cate, who better?"

So that, having put Hedda aside and ceased, as she puts it, "shooting myself every night," Cate Blanchett moved on to exploring a district of Sydney called Cabramatta, where the film is set among Asian immigrants, and reading William S. Burroughs's book Junky. Hugo Weaving, who was judge Brack to her Hedda, shaved off his Ibsenian beard to play an older junkie in the same film. It's not a static thing, who you are, and for actors, work is about using the endless recombinant facets of some secretinner self.